The England to which Thackeray returned in 1831 was a monarchy, which, on the eve of the Reform Act passed the following year, had long made a cultural transition from a court-centred society to one more centred on the home, the club, the country mansion, the counting-house and the factory—a transition not yet accomplished by the Weimar he had just left. Nineteenth-century England was interested in questions of ‘national character’, including that of a Germany which, in Geoffrey Tillotson’s words, ‘once again claimed the attention [it] had had in Luther’s day’, thanks largely, though not exclusively, to Thomas Carlyle. Thackeray sought first to cater for this interest by completing the version of Mannert’s Compendium of German History that he had begun at Weimar—but he soon tired of this task, finding that the book was too ‘stupid’ (by which he probably meant too dry) for continued attention. He then bethought himself of a way in which he might combine an appeal to those who wanted to learn more of German literature with an appeal to a taste for German history. We have watched him begin, at Weimar, the translation of Arndt’s poem in praise of Field Marshal Prince Gebhard von Blücher, whose name had become well known in England because of his share in the victory over Napoleon’s armies at Waterloo; Blücher also formed a link with the era of Frederick the Great. What better way, Thackeray thought, of utilizing his new-found expertise in German and his skill in versification than to bring a revised version of his translation before an English reading public in the columns of the liveliest of contemporary journals, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country? From his chambers in Essex Court, Temple (rented in the hope of an eventual qualification in jurisprudence), Thackeray therefore sent to the editor of Fraser’s a copy of 50‘The Field-Marshal from the German of Ernst Moritz Arndt’, together with a note expressing the hope it might be found ‘worthy of a vacant page in your Magazine’.
The squadrons are saluting, the merry trumpets blow.
Along the line the Marshal, is riding to & fro,
His fiery steed full lightly, the aged warrior guides,
His sabre glitters brightly, he waves it as he rides—
O see! how fierce & bright the warriors eyes do glow,
O see! how snowy white, are the locks upon his brow,
He’s old, but yet he will not his glorious post resign,
For age but makes him riper, like old & mellow wine.
And when the bad cause triumphed, & hope it was no more,
He raised his sword to heaven, & bitterly he swore;
He swore, in scorn & anger, upon the blade so bright,
That he would teach the Frenchmen how Germans used to fight
He kept his word, when loudly his country’s warcry rung,
Then gaily to his saddle, the grey haired youth he sprung,
He kept his word full truly! & with an iron hand
Like chaff he swept the Frenchmen from his darling fatherland.
On the bloody field of Lützen, good service did he then
Upon the field were lying ten thousand slaughtered men,
And thousands more beside them, were fain to make retreat,
And carry to their master the news of their defeat—
At the Katzbach stream the Frenchmen learnt a goodly art from him
Albeit unused to water he taught them how to swim
Swim on Swim on or else go down in the deep & wide Ostsea
Where down whales throats Sir Sansculottes your resting place shall be—
At Wartbourg on the Elbe, a pretty chase he led them.
Their walls could not defend them, their ramparts never staid them,
Like hares the French were flying, from field to field they ran.
And loudly he was crying, his huzza, the brave old man!
He fought them & he conquered at Leipzig on the plain,
The Frenchmans luck there left him, & ne’er returned again
51And when the fight was over, & the victory was won,
And gained his Marshal’s baton, for the deeds that he had done!
With brave hussars saluting, & trumpets blowing shrill,
Ride on, ride on Sir Marshal, our hearts are with the[e] still—
In father land or foreign, where’er your course may be,
Heaven prosper thee Sir Marshal—God fights for us & thee.(LPP i. 179–80) It is worthwhile, just this once, to look at the kinds of transformation which the young Thackeray thought necessary to make this poem palatable and intriguing to English readers without violating the metre, stanza division and rhyme scheme of an original written in 1813, in the midst of Prussia’s struggle to liberate herself from French occupation. Das Lied vom Feldmarschall
Was blasen die Trompeten? Husaren, heraus!
Es reitet der Feldmarschall im fliegenden Saus,
Er reitet so freudig sein mutiges Pferd,
Er schwinget so schneidig sein blitzendes Schwert.
O schauet, wie ihm leuchten die Augen so klar!
O schauet, wie ihm wallet sein schneeweisses Haar!
So frisch blüht sein Alter wie greisender Wein,
Drum kann er Verwalter des Schlachtfeldes sein.
Der Mann ist er gewesen, als alles versank,
Der mutig auf gen Himmel den Degen noch schwang;
Da schwur er beim Eisen gar zomig und hart,
Den Wälschen zu weisen die deutscheste Art.
Den Schwur hat er gehalten. Als Kriegsruf erklang,
Hei! wie der weisse Jüngling in’n Sattel sich schwang!
Da ist er’s gewesen, der Kehraus gemacht,
Mit eisernen Besen das Land rein gemacht.
Bei Lützen auf der Aue er hielt solchen Strauss,
Dass vielen tausend Wälschen der Atem ging aus,
Dass Tausende liefen dort hasigen Lauf,
Zehntausend entschliefen, die nimmer wachen auf.
Am Wasser der Katzbach er’s auch hat bewährt,
Da hat er den Franzosen das Schwimmen gelehrt:
52Fahrt wohl, ihr Franzosen, zur Ostsee hinab!
Und nahmt, Ohnehosen, den Walfisch zum Grab.
Bei Wartburg an der Elbe wie fuhr er hindurch!
Da schirmte die Franzosen nicht Schanze noch Burg:
Da mussten sie springen, wie Hasen über’s Feld,
Hintendrein liess erklingen sein Hussa! der Held.
Bei Leipzig auf dem Plane, o herrliche Schlacht!
Da brach er den Franzosen das Glück und die Macht,
Da lagen sie sicher nach blutigem Fall:
Da ward der Herr Blücher ein Feldmarschall.
Drum blaset, ihr Trompeten! Husaren, heraus!
Du reite, Herr Feldmarschall, wie Winde im Saus!
Dem Siege entgegen, zum Rhein, über’n Rhein,
Du tapferer Degen, in Frankreich hinein!In stanza 1, Arndt’s rhetorical questions and exclamatory answers are transformed into more sober statement; instead of riding—almost flying—past as he leads his troops into battle, Thackeray’s Marshal rides ‘to and fro’, taking the salute of his squadron. Instead of a ‘joyous’ rider on a ‘brave’ horse, the English reader is offered an ‘aged warrior’ lightly guiding his ‘fiery steed’. The fourth line offers no equivalent of ‘schneidig’—’dashing and sharp’, a key word for the Prussian self-image, often derided by the more phlegmatic south Germans.